Re-Learning Empathy.

Re-Learning Empathy.

I realized that I’m not that great at listening to my children. As a mother for nearly 15 years, this is somewhat humbling to admit.

I had the realization while standing at my daughter’s bedside in the hospital a few days after the start of the New Year. She had broken her leg, a traumatic and painful experience that required surgery and two nights in the hospital. 

Standing there, it dawned on me that I had no idea what she was feeling. I had no experience to compare it to, no anecdote to draw from, no frame of reference to orient myself or to help orient her. She was in a wilderness I had not traversed before and I understood that I, so used to leading, had no idea how to guide her. 

Instead, I tried to walk alongside. I stayed present. I looked at her face and noticed when it grimaced in pain and when it softened into a smile. I listened. I asked how she felt. I asked what she needed. I followed her lead. 

It was a totally new experience for me.

So often in parenting, I’ve relied on personal experience to guide me. I’ve tried to put myself in my kids’ shoes and connect their experiences to my own childhood memories.

There were limits to this, I knew. My experiences as a Black woman growing up non-Christian in the rural South were not identical to theirs as biracial children growing up Christian and progressive in Texas. 

So, I have tried to stay curious. To say, “How does that make you feel? What do you think you should do? What do you want to do?” But these moments are fleeting – a few minutes of conversation as opposed to the foundation of how I help my pre-adolescent and teenaged children navigate their own worlds. More often, I recall what it felt like to be their age and glean from my own experiences in an attempt at empathy.

Perhaps this is because my understanding of empathy has been incomplete. I have a distinct memory of learning the difference between empathy and sympathy as an adolescent. The two differed, I was told, because sympathy meant you were feeling sorry for someone else’s experience. Empathy was finding a commonality between your experience and theirs and thinking about how you would feel if you were in their shoes.

A recent book by Brené Brown, Ph.D., called Atlas of the Heart has helped me understand the limits of this point of view. “We need to dispel the myth that empathy is ‘walking in someone else’s shoes,’” she writes. “Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences.”

That last part hit me hard.

As a parent, I’ve tried to steer away from this “I know your pain better than you do” approach. But it’s easy to fall into the grooves already carved into my psyche by experience. I find myself channeling the grown folks of my youth when my kids come to me with hurt feelings or boo-boos. “Does it really hurt?” I find myself thinking and sometimes, saying. “It seems like it shouldn’t hurt that bad. You’re okay. You’re fine.”

But what do I know?

I am nearly 40 years old and firmly in the generation of kids whose parents told them “I’ll give you something to cry about” if we whimpered during our spankings. We were told that switches against our legs or smacks on the behind didn’t hurt enough to make us cry. Nothing hurt as much as we thought it did, according to grown folks. 

I can remember having sore back muscles from my playground antics and making the mistake of saying so around some friends of my parents. They laughed and said, “Awww your back don’t hurt. You ain’t grown.” I remember being confused. My back did hurt. Granted, it probably wasn’t the arthritic pain of adulthood, but it was pain. It was confusing to be told I wasn’t feeling something I knew that I was feeling because I was too young to feel it. Even now as an adult, I find pain confusing because I feel like I shouldn’t be feeling it, or that it isn’t as bad as I think it is.

This is not to say our parents and aunts and uncles lacked empathy, compassion, or love; I felt wrapped in all three. And as an adult, I understand their pain denial was often rooted in a desire to protect me from the ills of a grossly unfair world, one in which a white and patriarchal society would tell me I wasn’t feeling or experiencing what I knew to be true. If I was going to complain, grown folks seemed to be saying, I had better make damn sure the pain was large, documentable, and undeniable, and even then, the world may not take the pain of a Black girl living in a single-wide trailer all that seriously.

As a parent, I’ve tried to steer away from this “I know your pain better than you do” approach. But it’s easy to fall into the grooves already carved into my psyche by experience. I find myself channeling the grown folks of my youth when my kids come to me with hurt feelings or boo-boos. “Does it really hurt?” I find myself thinking and sometimes, saying. “It seems like it shouldn’t hurt that bad. You’re okay. You’re fine.”

But what do I know?

At the hospital, when the doctors and nurses asked my daughter to rate her pain, they listened as she spoke and then they simply recorded the number. There was no: “Are you sure? Are you exaggerating?” or “You look like you’re in a lot of pain – should the number be higher?” As Brown would say, they practiced empathy by simply believing her.

I am learning that if I am to be present with my children, and with anyone for that matter, it doesn’t necessarily matter how I would feel in their place; but it does matter that I hear what they’re saying about how they feel.

As I tend to my daughter’s healing, I am also learning to practice a deeper form of empathy and compassion. Brown says, “We can respond empathically only if we are willing to be present to someone’s pain.”

I am trying to be more present to my children’s pain, joy, and wisdom. Daily, I am practicing empathy, not just by considering how I would feel in their shoes, but by trusting they know themselves well enough to describe their own experiences. I am learning that if I am to be present with my children, and with anyone for that matter, it doesn’t necessarily matter how I would feel in their place; but it does matter that I hear what they’re saying about how they feel. This is the kind of compassion I am cultivating. This is the type of empathy I hope to one day embody.

This post is part of a monthly series called Watch. Read. Listen., where I explore some of my favorite shows, movies, books, articles, and podcasts.

4 responses to “Re-Learning Empathy.”

  1. Thank you for sharing Brene Brown’s wisdom about empathy. It sounds like you are doing a good job of being consciously present to your kids. I’m impressed.

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